MIDLAND CITY, Ala. – Midland City is a place where things have always gone more or less according to plan. There was that time the Beck house burned down, but even then two Bibles and a picture of Christ remained untouched.
So the current crisis – a little boy kidnapped and held prisoner underground for days – has left people here struggling to find a purpose behind it. They have found none on their televisions or in local newspapers, because authorities have released little information.
On Tuesday, a man believed to be 65-year-old Jimmy Lee Dykes stormed a school bus, shot and killed driver Charles Poland, and dragged a 5-year-old named Ethan from the bus and into a subterranean bunker on his property. But Dykes has not, in any public way, aired a grievance. So for almost a week Midland City’s 2,300 citizens have remained suspended in horrified puzzlement.
“Just, why?” Ed Baker, a retired helicopter pilot, said Saturday.
Poland, 66, who was known around town as Chuck, was described by folks in his nearby town of Newton as a humble hero. Hundreds of people attended a viewing service for Poland – who was raised in the North Idaho towns of St. Maries and Athol – on Saturday evening. His funeral was set for today.
Dale County Sheriff Wally Olson said in a briefing with reporters Saturday that Dykes has told them he has blankets and an electric heater in the bunker on his property. Authorities have set up a command post at a church and have been communicating with Dykes through a ventilation pipe to the underground bunker.
People who know Dykes describe him as an odd and menacing presence in the neighborhood – digging strange holes in his yard, beating dogs – but they had no answers as to his motives.
“We call him Mean Man,” said Ronda Wilbur, who lives across the street from Dykes. “He killed my dog with a lead pipe.”
She said Dykes’ troubles in the neighborhood started as soon as he arrived in his travel trailer several years ago. He removed another neighbor’s mailbox, she said, and replaced it with his own. By day he would sit in a deer-hunting stand overlooking the road, glaring at children and intimidating parents.
Wilbur said her husband once had words with Dykes. “He told my husband he wouldn’t just K-I-L-L the D-O-G-S,” she said. She spelled words, because her 7-year-old granddaughter, Ava, clung to her legs. “He would do the P-E-O-P-L-E too, especially the K-I-D-S.”
He disliked children in the neighborhood, she said, because they had come onto his property at some point. But there seems to be nothing connecting Dykes with Ethan, a child with Asperger’s syndrome who didn’t make it off the school bus as quickly as his 21 schoolmates. Another boy, 12-year-old Brantley Reilly, had gotten off the same bus a few minutes earlier, and said that nothing about Ethan stood out.
“He just seemed like everybody else,” he said.
When the incident began, Wilbur said, authorities quickly arrived. Her son, Kyle, used his phone to record officers across the street using an amplifier to communicate with Dykes in the first moments of the crisis:
“You need to lay down any weapons you have and approach the police,” a voice blares across Dykes’ property. “This is not going to fix itself.”
And then more sharply: “We are not going away.”
Wilbur said Dykes had always raved about various governmental conspiracies, but nothing that offered insight to his thinking. “I don’t know why he’s doing this,” she said.
In the absence of answers, people in Midland City have turned to the only thing that remains: faith. Saturday afternoon a few dozen people gathered at a gazebo outside City Hall to pray for the boy, his family and his bus driver’s family. Someone posted a sign with a Twitter hashtag – #RescueEthan – and others sang “Amazing Grace.”
“As you lift your candle, and as you bow your head, remember these families,” said Libby Walden, known around town as Granny. She made an emotional declaration: “I believe Ethan will come out of that bunker. And Mr. Dykes will come out a changed man.”
Joshua Tucker, 20, arranged the vigil.
“We can’t physically go down in the bunker and help him,” he said. “So we are just doing everything we can do instead.”
One of Dykes’ next-door neighbors said the suspect spent two or three months constructing the bunker, digging several feet into the ground and then building a structure of lumber and plywood, which he covered with sand and dirt.
Neighbor Michael Creel said Dykes put the plastic pipe underground from the bunker to the end of his driveway so he could hear if anyone drove up to his gate. When Dykes finished the shelter a year or so ago, he invited Creel to see it – and he did.
“He was bragging about it. He said, ‘Come check it out,’ ” Creel said.
He said he believes Dykes’ goal is to publicize his political beliefs.
“I believe he wants to rant and rave about politics and government,” Creel said. “He’s very concerned about his property.”
Sheriff Olson would not say Saturday whether Dykes has made any demands.
Dykes’ neighborhood sits off U.S. Highway 231, where authorities used a small church and its parking lot as a command post and helipad. Across the highway, television crews set up cameras for live feeds.
Helicopters and satellite trucks are strange creatures in Midland City. But locals reacted with hospitality, bringing truckloads of food to the federal and local police units at the church.
Olson has held news conferences each morning and evening, but details are few. He spoke for just a few seconds Saturday, and seemed to be addressing Dykes himself. “I want to thank him for taking care of our boy,” he said.
Police had persuaded Dykes – communicating through the PVC ventilation pipe – to accept the boy’s medicine, coloring books and crayons.
Beyond that, the sheriff said, the situation was too sensitive for comment.